As a Minnesota Twins loyalist, I know that I am essentially cheering for laundry. For me, the name on the front of the jersey will always transcend the one on the back.
I think it is only natural, though, for fans to have favorite individual players. A lot of times, that’s how children are introduced to the sport: through the charisma of one personality. For me, that was obviously Kirby Puckett, but in the years since I’ve had a through-line of other favorites:
1996 was my first year watching the Twins consistently, and Chuck Knoblauch was the best player on that team. His .341 BA tied Paul Molitor for the team lead and he was an absolute terror on the base paths (45 swipes). One of my great Twins “what-ifs?” is what that offense could have accomplished with Puck in the middle of it.
A few years later, Knobby absconded for the Big Apple and didn’t exactly mince words about his pleasure in leaving Minnesota. As such, it was time for a new favorite, which I found in Brad Radke. At that time, the Twins weren’t exactly known for their pitching (perhaps the understatement of all-time). In the late-90s, Radke was quite literally all they had. Whenever my Dad and I would head to the Dome it was #22 I wanted to see toe the rubber, as he was one of the (few) starters that gave the team a chance to win.
For many years—and through many shaky first innings—I steadfastly supported Radke as my favorite Twin. That is, until the Twins front office pulled off a heist from the Giants in the A.J. Pierzynski trade, acquiring Joe Nathan from the west coast. Though Everyday Eddie Guardado had been a lot of fun as closer, his “always make it interesting” routine paled in comparison to Nathan’s sheer dominance (neck-and-neck with Mariano Rivera through the end of the 2000s). Nathan’s Dome entrance from the left field bullpen pretty much sealed the deal for me. As a college graduation gift, my aunt even got me a navy blue #36 jersey.
In 2008, though still standing up and shouting for Nathan, a new favorite emerged. With the team giving Carlos Gomez a lot of rope in CF (being the linch-pin of the Johan Santana trade will do that), Denard Span was called up that season and installed in right field for an injured Michael Cuddyer. Not only did the Span Man seem to play the quirky Dome RF perfectly, but he had a knack for quality at-bats, clutch hits, and was soon batting leadoff. He took over CF in 2009 and ably manned that turf/grass for four seasons.
By 2012, Span’s last year in Minnesota, it was pretty clear that the Twins were pretty bad. As such, it became pretty simple to just cheer for the guy who hit monstrous home runs, and Josh Willingham fit that bill. The Hammer had a remarkable ‘12 campaign (35 HR, 110 RBI, .890 OPS) and an almost uncanny knack for performing well when I was in attendance at Target Field. Yes Pig, indeed.
After a few years of Willingham bombs, I was ready for the Twins to compete for the division crown again. That happened in 2015, and Brian Dozier seemed to be the emotional leader of that squad. Not only did Dozier play well (39 2B, 28 HR, 104 OPS+), but his flair for the dramatic was impeccable. I had a lot of respect for his team leadership—even as a youngster—and willingness to work hard at his craft. Though never the most talented player, the Bull-Dozer was always honing his game to get the most out of himself.
After the black-hole abyss of 2016, the Twins bounced back in ‘17. A big part of obtaining that season’s wild-card berth? Dozier was still around, sure, but the late-season emergence of young SS Jorge Polanco was what really caught my eye.
It was easy to see that Jorge was already a polished hitter right from the get-go. Even after a performance-enhancing drug suspension derailed his 2018, he bounced back last year with a solid line (40 2B, 22 HR, .295 BA, .841 OPS). Whenever I’m at the ballpark, I’ll never not check the box next to his name in the Pick 3 phone app game.
Knobby—Brad—Joe—Span—Hammer—Doz—Jorge. From the mid-90s to today, that line represents the lineage of my favorite individual Twins players. While Polancoville is still my chosen place of residence these days, I’m sure another hurler or batsman will come along soon and capture my fancy. That’s one of the great things about baseball—there’s inevitably another favorite right around the corner.